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Nearly three years ago, I published my first lesson in the Learn to Machine Sew course for beginners here on Cucicucicoo, which was about the anatomy of a sewing machine. In this lesson I mentioned the free arm, though I didn’t actually explain what it is and how to use it.
However it’s one of those super important features of a sewing machine that makes your life so much easier when sewing tubes of fabric, such as sleeve or pants hems, so I figured that it was finally time to show you what is a free arm on a sewing machine and just how useful it is.
This is my Elna Lotus. This sewing machine has an unusual design, in which you can remove the whole wide base to expose the free arm (as shown on the bottom). But nearly all contemporary sewing machines have a part that can be removed to access the free arm. The Singer Simple you can see in the anatomy of a sewing machine lesson has a small accessory compartment that gets removed. If you can’t figure it out, be sure to refer to your machine’s manual.
The free arm is a much more narrow working surface than the regular sewing machine base is, and has a space beneath it so that it does not hit the table it’s sitting on.
It’s normally more convenient to position the fabric you’re sewing on a wider base, however when you are sewing relatively tight tubes of fabric, such as sleeves and pant legs, it’s much easier to simply slip the tube right around the free arm so that the fabric doesn’t get bunched up and you don’t accidentally sew through multiple layers of fabric when you didn’t want to.
Ready to find out how to use a free arm? I’m going to show you two ways: joining two tubes of fabric and hemming a tube of fabric, so grab some scraps and let’s get started!
How to join two tubes of fabric
In this type of situation, you will usually already have two tubes of fabric that match up. Just to show you how to do this, cut two 15 x 35 cm (6 x 14″) rectangles of fabric. This should be sufficient to reach around your free arm.
Fold each piece in half, right sides facing, so that you match up the short ends. Pin, and sew with a 1 cm (3/8″) seam allowance. At this point just use your machine as you normally would, not with the free arm.
Press the seam allowances open on the wrong side of the fabric.
If it is hard to sew small tubes of fabric, it is also hard to iron them. This is why I highly suggest you procure a collapsible sleeve ironing board*. Mine is a super cheap one I got years ago and I just cannot do without it. I also use it to help me cut handmade bias tape.
Turn one piece right side out and slip it inside the other tube, so that the right sides are facing.
Line up the seams and edges along the side you plan on sewing, and pin all around.
Open up your machine’s free arm and slip the tube right around it.
Line up the edge of the fabric with the required seam allowance (I used 1 cm) on the needle plate, lower the presser foot, and sew as usual. I like to start from the seams just to make sure that they don’t slide around at all while sewing. (top)
As you sew, the fabric tube will get pulled along underneath the free arm. However it can sometimes get a little bunched underneath, so I use my fingers to help pull it out every so often as I sew. (bottom)
There you have it! Super simple!
Pull the inner tube out so that the wrong sides are out.
Slip the tube over your sleeve ironing board, open up the seam allowances and press them flat. See how nicely the seams line up?
Turn the tube right side out, and you can admire your work! Well, this practice piece is far from beautiful, but now you know how to join two tubes on real projects!
I use the free arm most frequently to hem sleeves, pant legs or to finish off necklines or other openings in garment sewing. So now I’ll show you how to hem a simple fabric tube.
Cut one 15 x 35 cm (6 x 14″) rectangle of fabric. Just like we did before, fold it in half, right sides facing, so that you match up the short ends. Pin, and sew with a 1 cm (3/8″) seam allowance. At this point just use your machine as you normally would, not with the free arm.
Slip the tube over the collapsible sleeve ironing board* and iron the seam allowances flat.
We will hem the tube while still on this small ironing board. Fold the edge over 1 cm (3/8″), iron it flat, then fold and iron it again by the same amount. Notice how the seam visible on the folded portion matches up with the seam visible on the wrong side of the fabric. (If you don’t know how to hem, see this lesson on how to hem.)
Like we did before when joining two tubes, open up your machine’s free arm and slip the tube right around it. Line up the edge of the fabric with the required seam allowance (I used just under 1 cm) on the needle plate, lower the presser foot, and sew as usual. I like to start from the seams just to make sure that they don’t slide around at all while sewing. As you sew, the fabric tube will get pulled along underneath the free arm. However it can sometimes get a little bunched underneath, so I use my fingers to help pull it out every so often as I sew.
See how perfectly the hem comes out?
I love how clean the hem and opened seam allowances look when using this technique!
Now that you know how to use a free arm, practice up so that you can start using it when sewing clothing! And get ready, because next week I’ll have a new tutorial ready so that you can use it!
This lesson on what is a free arm on a sewing machine is part of the syllabus of Cucicucicoo’s Learn to Machine Sew beginner’s sewing course! Don’t forget to share pictures of your work on Facebook or the Cucicucicoo Creations Flickr Group!
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2 thoughts on “What is a free arm on a sewing machine (and how to use it!)”
Wouldn’t it be easier to attached both pieces on the longest cut line, then sew them together on the up and down seam. This would save having the difficult task of sewing them together in a round. I realize this was your intent to teach how this would be possible, but I don’t see the point if one could be absolutely sure they would be joined on point like I suggested. Your comments?
Hi, Charmaine, of course, this is absolutely true, and I thought the same exact thing. But this point of this post is to show how the free arm works, and I couldn’t think of any other way for readers to get two tubes of fabric to join in a simple way except to do this. My goal was only to demonstrate how to slip the fabric over the free arm. If you have any other ideas, I would love to hear them! 🙂